Saturday, 22 March 2008

Easter 2008

JOHN 20:1-18
Our bible reading today focuses on two people: The disciple who Jesus loved (who is identified with John, but could in fact be anyone) and Mary Magdalene.

It is the story of how they came to believe that Jesus had risen from the dead.

1. There is the disciple who Jesus loved.
He believes because of the facts.

He gets to the tomb first, stands outside while Peter goes in, and then he himself goes in.

And he is convinced.

He is convinced by
the empty tomb
the grave clothes

The empty tomb in itself is no evidence. The body of Jesus could easily have been removed. That is what Mary thought.

But in fact the tomb was not empty: There were the grave clothes. The head cloth is lying in the place it should have been – just as if Jesus had materialised through it; and the strips of linen were lying elsewhere – as if they had been thrown off.

For John it was a combination of the absence of the body of Jesus and of the presence of the grave clothes.

It is hard to imagine what could have happened.
But it does tell us one thing: The body of Jesus could not have been removed. If it had been removed then they would certainly have taken it wrapped up. There would have been no grave clothes.

It was enough for John. Verse 8 tells us that ‘He saw and believed’.

He realised that this story, which he thought had one ending, has a very different ending.

I get irritated when people dismiss the literal resurrection by saying: ‘It was the disciples way of teaching that Jesus’ ideas lived on, that his Spirit lived on’. I have a sinking feeling, after Friday, that that is the way that ‘The Passion’ is going – although I will be delighted to be proved wrong.

Yes, of course Jesus’ Spirit lives on, but the idea that the followers of Jesus turned the resurrection into a metaphor or parable just does not hold true. A week earlier they had thought that he was going to defeat the Romans, liberate Israel and establish the Kingdom of God on earth. Now he is crucified, their hopes are dashed and they are wanted men.

Denying a literal resurrection leaves you with a very big problem. It does not explain how terrified followers of a crucified leader, could become a force that turned this world upside down.

They said, ‘Jesus is risen from the dead.’
They not only said it, but they were willing to go to the ends of the world to say it, and they were willing to be mocked for it, to lose everything for it, to die for it.

And we really do need to be like the disciple who Jesus loved. Like him, we are called to listen to the rumours that something has happened to his body. Like him, we are called to go to the tomb, to look at the evidence.
Do we see now why the bible doesn’t name him: because he is meant to be any one of us.

We have more evidence than John ever had. We have the absence of the body of Jesus, the grave clothes in the tomb, the multiple appearances to the disciples, on different occasions – he even ate with them. We have the evidence of their changed lives, of the fact that they moved the day of worship from the Jewish Sabbath to the Sunday – the day of the resurrection. And we have the witness of those like James – Jesus’ brother - who, while Jesus lived was so hostile to him, but who was changed by something, and became a follower.

And we also have the evidence of the scriptures: John 20.9 hints that there is this evidence, but that the disciples hadn’t really twigged. There are the promises of God in the Old Testament that the Messiah would suffer, die and rise again – look at Isaiah 53 or Daniel 7; the words of Jesus himself in our bible; and the experience of the first Christians and the earliest church communities.

You do not need to kiss your brain goodbye to believe in the resurrection of Jesus Christ. There are some great stories of people who set out to disprove the resurrection, and end up being convinced that it must have happened: perhaps the most well known is the story behind the writing of the book, ‘Who Moved the Stone’

Even one contemporary Orthodox Jewish scholar, Dr Pinchas Lapide has written that the only way to explain the emergence of the Christian community is the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. He writes, "I accept the resurrection of Jesus not as an invention of the community of disciples, but as a historical event." To be fair to him, it is Christian claims about Jesus as the messiah rather than about the resurrection, that is the key divide between Christianity and Judaism.

Wolfhart Pannenberg, a Christian theologian writes, “The evidence for Jesus’ resurrection is so strong that nobody would question it except for two things: first, it is a very unusual event. And second, if you believe it happened, you have to change the way you live.”

In fact, the real brain kissers are the people who do not even bother to find out if it could be true.

So this Easter, we can run to the tomb with the disciple who Jesus loved. We can find out if what Mary said is true: ‘They’ve taken the body away’.

Because if we do look at the evidence: there is very little room for doubt.

John saw and believed.

2. There is Mary Magdalene

Mary comes at this story from a very different angle.

She has come to be close to the dead body of her Lord.

They had taken the living Jesus away from her
Now, she thinks, they have taken the dead Jesus away from her

And my guess is that Mary is in that place of darkness (v1, ‘While it was still dark’), of emptiness, of abandonment, of tears and of death. She is in the pit.

Her grief blinds her to the facts. It blinds her to the presence of the grave clothes in the tomb; it blinds her to realising who the people are who are speaking to her; it blinds her to seeing Jesus when he stands in front of her.

And it is only when he speaks her name that she realises that, No, they haven’t taken his body. He has risen. He is alive.

My wife pointed out that this ever so Mars/Venus, male/female.
The man (if it is John) convinced by the facts;
the woman convinced by the encounter.

Far be it for me to stereotype.
For 2000 years, men and women have been convinced by the facts: Jesus rose from the dead
For 2000 years, men and women have been convinced because they encounter the risen Jesus.

It really doesn’t matter how one comes to believe.

What does matter is that you make the effort to find out.

What does matter is that:
 Jesus is risen
 Death has been conquered
 Our sins are forgiven. His God is now our God and His Father is now our Father
 This life is not what it is all about

What does matter is that: “If you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved”

What does matter is that the tomb, evil, darkness, tears, emptiness, abandonment and death are not the end. For the person who puts their trust in Jesus, the end of it all is faith, love, light, joy, fullness, the presence of God and life.

Alleluia, Christ is risen!
He is risen indeed, Alleluia!

Friday, 14 March 2008

Palm Sunday 2008

Matthew 21:1-11

It is often noted that Jesus could have come into Jerusalem as a conquering warrior.

It was what people desired: the hero, the Messiah: the one who would evict the Romans, who would solve their problems and give them what they wanted.

But Jesus chooses instead to come into Jerusalem riding on a donkey.

And in doing so, Jesus declares three things

1. That he is Messiah, God's King who is coming to God's city in order to reign.

He fulfils the prophecy of Zechariah 9:9 - which says that the Messiah will come riding on a donkey
And he receives the people's praise: if there is anything ambiguous about the riding on a donkey, there is nothing ambiguous about the people's praise. They are acclaiming him descendant of David, the greatest King in Israel's history; David was the prototype for the Messiah who is to come. And so the people declare Jesus to be King and Messiah: "Hosanna to the Son of David"

2. The nature of his kingship

- that he is the fulfilment of all the prophecies in the Old Testament.
- that he comes in righteousness (that everything about him is right: he is the right person doing the right thing at the right time in the right way in the right place) in order to bring salvation.

The Jews understood salvation as being deliverance from the Romans.
Jesus understands salvation as being deliverance from sin and death.

3. That he has come in gentleness:

He has come for the crushed and the broken
He has come for the people who feel so weighed down by guilt, self-condemnation, by the condemnation of others, by the burdens that we impose on ourselves or have imposed on us.
The Jesus who rides on a donkey is the Jesus who has compassion on people, who forgives, who heals, who gives hope
He will not rule by fear or compulsion. As Romans 2:10 says, "It is the goodness of God which leads us to repentance"

So his transport of choice is not a war horse, but a donkey.
His place of birth is not a palace but a cowshed
And the symbol of his rule is not a sword, but a cross.
And the currency of his government is not fear or self-interest but love.

It is not easy to reject an all conquering warrior with a sword.
It is, however, quite possible to reject a ruler who comes riding on a donkey.

The religious and political leaders, those who had most invested in this world, do reject him.
But his disciples and the children receive him.

And the Jesus who rode into Jerusalem is the same Jesus who comes to each one of us.

He does not come to force us to receive him.
He does not come with a sword.
He comes in gentleness

There is a verse in Revelation 3:21, where Jesus says, "Behold I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with him, and he with me". He could blast the door down, but he doesn't. He stands outside and knocks. He waits for us to respond.

Of course we need to remember that he comes to us to be our king, the one who rules our lives

We need to submit to him. And there are many times when he asks us to do things that we would not choose to do. There are times when obedience is painful. But we remember that his rule is good and gentle. He will not overburden us. If you feel that your faith is overburdening you, then you have put onto yourself burdens that he would not have you carry.
We need to praise him - why? Is he like some sick human ruler who gets kicks out of other people telling him or her how good she is? No. We need to praise him because we praise what is good. If we do not praise what is good, then we are pretty sick people. And Jesus is the good of good.

Jesus comes in gentleness, humility and love.

That is why he serves and reigns not from a throne with a sword, but - as we will see in the second part of this service - from a cross with outstretched hands.

Friday, 7 March 2008

The Cross

Mark 15:1-20
1. The cross shows us what human beings can do to other human beings

We like to think of ourselves as civilized

At the LIFE exhibition, talking with the children and asking them what some of the differences are between the time when Jesus lived then and now. And one of the children said, ‘We don’t do the sort of things that they did then. We don’t crucify people’.

I wish that were true. Certainly it is not normal in our society – but then our society has had 1000 years of Christian teaching. The values of tolerance and mercy have grown because there are men and women – people like Wilberforce, and Elizabeth Fry and Shaftesbury – who have taken the teaching of the bible seriously, and because – up to now – a great deal of Jesus’ teaching is enshrined in our law. It will be interesting to see, for instance, how society develops as you begin to demand tolerance from people, but give them no reason for tolerance.

The problem is that we only need to look at other societies, even societies which have had centuries of Christian teaching, and see what people do to each other.
Reading Orlando Figes on the Russian revolution. They crucified people then.
I heard of the girl in Rwanda who survived for a month, during the genocide, by living under the dead in a church.
We hear of what happened in Sarajevo.

The brutal reality is that it does not take much to transform us from civilized human beings into a mob screaming for someone’s death. Underneath the garments of respectability, there are wild beasts controlled by demons.

In Mark 15, we read how Jesus was falsely accused, defamed before Pilate, dehumanized, mocked, subjected to intense physical violence, tortured and then murdered. It is a story about envy, fear, mob aggression and brutality.

It is a story that is repeated in big ways and in little ways every day.

We strip our enemies of any validity. The Nazis did it to the Jews: they said that the Jews were like rats, spreading disease. On Friday we had the funeral service for Fred Morley, a former FEPOW. They were treated as if they were subhuman. Or we think of what was going on in the Abu Ghraib prison in Baghdad. And once you have defined your enemy as a pest, as a subhuman, it is relatively easy to do to them things you would never do to people you considered human.

But it is not just about what others do. We are as guilty. We do it here: every time a person is turned into a label. In Holloway we ran a centre for asylum seekers. I’m not saying that issues about asylum seekers are easy, or that this country should have an open door policy for everyone – but we really do need to see asylum seekers as people - they are not all over here to get our benefits, they are not all terrorists, they do not all infest our country with deadly diseases.

There is a danger that we do it to people of other religious convictions: all Muslims are not terrorists. I get very nervous when I hear people in Christian circles denouncing Muslims. Of course there is so much with which I profoundly disagree with in Islam, but actually there is so much with which I profoundly disagree with in contemporary society. Muslims are just too easy a target for us. We need to turn our attention to the many things that are happening that are much closer to home. It is too easy to dehumanise people with whom we have little or no contact.

We need to be careful when we stop seeing people as people and start to see them as numbers or objects or labels. It is too easy to do things to someone who you do not know, who you do not need to treat as a person. You treat them as a label, a number, a statistic; you name them – naming someone is incredibly powerful – they’re a CHAV or hoody or YUPPY. You joke about them, think it is OK to get one over on them, you make them look stupid or vulnerable. You make them wait, know their place; you say 'no' to them because you can say 'no' to them. And add a bit of fear and a bit of envy, and it is very easy to move on from that: you spit at them, you hit them, you put a crown of thorns on their head, you beat them, you nail them to a wooden crossbar and you crucify them. And the really frightening thing is that you can do that, and go home and kiss your wife and sit your daughter on your knee and tell her a story, and go to bed and sleep peacefully. Why? Because you did your job – it had nothing to do with you: you were the exterminator brought in to do a bit of pest control..

The cross shows us human depravity in its darkest form.

Please do not think that you are exempt from the sort of stuff that goes on here. In other times, in other places we - you or I - would be there with the crowds: we flatter ourselves if we think that we would stand against the lynch mob, or the requests to inform on neighbours to the secret police, or abstain from the practice of denunciation if by doing so others would denounce us. We kid ourselves big time if we think we would refuse to obey orders that came from above to take part in the elimination of a group of aliens.

So the cross shows us what human beings can do, and do do, to other human beings.

2. The cross shows us the love of Jesus
Jesus confesses in front of Pilate (so different from Peter).

In verse 2, he confesses openly to a title, ‘King of the Jews’. It was a confession that would lead immediately to his execution. It is called 'the good confession' by Paul in his letter to Timothy (1 Timothy 6:13).

Jesus did not need to answer Pilate's question. He was clever enough to say it in a way that would have meant that they would have nothing on him, or in a way that would have meant they could dismiss him as a madman or a no hoper. In effect that has been happening for the previous 3 years. But he doesn't. He declares the truth: and in confessing, he signs his death warrant.

And the reason: Jesus is like us – but he is not like us. He has the same hungers and desires as we have, but he knows where those desires can be most fully satisfied, and that is in God. So he wills God. And although he is tempted to put his trust in anything but God, he stands firm.

In making his confession, Jesus chooses death. But he chooses to die out of love for us and obedience to his Father.

a) He chooses to die to identify himself with us in our God-forsakenness

The cross really is the one thing that should make despair about our human condition. Is there any hope for men or women when we can do this sort of thing to another person.

But the cross convinces us of the love of God.
Jesus goes into the pit of God-forsakenness in order to identify with us in our suffering and God-forsakenness.

There is a poem which some of you will know. It is not theologically perfect, but it makes the point. It is called The Long Silence
At the end of time, billions of people were seated on a great plain before God's throne. Most shrank back from the brilliant light before them. But some groups near the front talked heatedly, not cringing with cringing shame - but with belligerence. "Can God judge us? How can He know about suffering?", snapped a pert young brunette. She ripped open a sleeve to reveal a tattooed number from a Nazi concentration camp. "We endured terror ... beatings ... torture ... death!" In another group a Negro boy lowered his collar. "What about this?" he demanded, showing an ugly rope burn. "Lynched, for no crime but being black !" In another crowd there was a pregnant schoolgirl with sullen eyes: "Why should I suffer?" she murmured. "It wasn't my fault."
Far out across the plain were hundreds of such groups. Each had a complaint against God for the evil and suffering He had permitted in His world. How lucky God was to live in Heaven, where all was sweetness and light. Where there was no weeping or fear, no hunger or hatred. What did God know of all that man had been forced to endure in this world? For God leads a pretty sheltered life, they said.
So each of these groups sent forth their leader, chosen because he had suffered the most. A Jew, a negro, a person from Hiroshima, a horribly deformed arthritic, a thalidomide child. In the centre of the vast plain, they consulted with each other. At last they were ready to present their case. It was rather clever.
Before God could be qualified to be their judge, He must endure what they had endured. Their decision was that God should be sentenced to live on earth as a man. Let him be born a Jew. Let the legitimacy of his birth be doubted. Give him a work so difficult that even his family will think him out of his mind. Let him be betrayed by his closest friends. Let him face false charges, be tried by a prejudiced jury and convicted by a cowardly judge. Let him be tortured.At the last, let him see what it means to be terribly alone. Then let him die so there can be no doubt he died. Let there be a great host of witnesses to verify it. As each leader announced his portion of the sentence, loud murmurs of approval went up from the throng of people assembled.
When the last had finished pronouncing sentence, there was a long silence. No one uttered a word. No one moved. For suddenly, all knew that God had already served His sentence.
Whatever it is you are going through – Jesus has been there. And he went there, not in order to beat himself up for the suffering that we go through, but because it really was the only way to save us. He has to identify with us in the full consequences of our sinfulness in order to save us from our sinfulness.

b) He chooses to die in the same way that a soldier might choose to die so that his friends can live.

But whereas a soldier will die for his friends, Jesus dies for his enemies.

He dies for Barabbas
He dies for the very people who mock him, beat him and torture him.
He dies for people who dehumanize others
He dies for us

Whereas we are controlled by envy and fear, he is controlled by love and obedience.

Key verse in Mark's gospel: Mark 10:45

He dies for us, so that we can be set free from this slavery to dehumanise others – so that we can be forgiven, and begin to see others, particularly others who we might envy or fear, with love.